In 1980, Larry Holmes fought Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight championship. Holmes was 31 and still in his prime. Ali was 38, past his prime and seeking to become the first four-time champion in heavyweight history.
It didn’t happen.
Holmes, who had been Ali’s sparring partner for four years, became the first person to ever beat Ali via TKO. Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, stopped the fight after the tenth round.
People who saw the fight will tell you Holmes gave Ali a savage beating. Holmes, who had known Ali for a decade at that point, insists that wasn’t the case.
“I did not want to hurt Ali because Ali was my friend,” Holmes said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “He gave me the opportunity, paid me, fed me and gave me a (a job). When a person takes you out of the ghetto and puts clothes on your back, you can’t forget that. A lot of people, when they get in the ring, they forget where they come from. I did not forget where I come from. Ali and I have been friends for a long time and we stayed there. He’s going to always be missed in my book. One of the greatest fighters of all time. Would give you the shirt off his back. I done seen a lot of athletes (refuse to give people autographs, saying), ‘I ain’t got time. I ain’t got time.’ Ali would stop and sign every damn autograph everybody wanted. He would sign them – pictures, everything. Sometimes he would even come to your hometown just to say hello to you.”
Holmes cried after the fight – not because he was happy to retain his belt, but because neither Ali nor the referee stopped the fight earlier.
“Ali wouldn’t quit,” Holmes said. “Too much man in Muhammad Ali. He would not have quit.”
Ali passed away last Friday at the age of 74. Bombastic in and out of the ring, Ali is widely regarded as one of the most influential and controversial figures of the 20th century.
“He was a good guy,” Holmes said. “He said a lot of things to make you mad at him, but that’s what fighters do. I did the same thing. We trash-talked. Everybody. And then after the fight was over, what did we do? We hugged. We made up.”
Ali’s biggest controversy, perhaps, came in 1967, when he refused to fight in Vietnam after getting drafted, saying the war ran counter to his religious and social beliefs.
Holmes likely would have done the same thing.
“Listen, my brother went to war,” he said. “He was over in Vietnam. He used to send pictures back, and the pictures didn’t look good. It looked scary and he looked scared. He was in a place where he’d never been before. Then I wondered why we had to go over there to fight. Why can’t they come over here and fight? Then I wanted to be with him. Listen, I would not have went. I would not have joined the service. I don’t care. People would have to just be mad at me. I’d rather (be alive and have people) be mad at me than me being dead. Because that’s what happened to you when you go over there. Most of our young people died. And what for? If they’ve never been to Arlington Cemetery, they need to go. They need to go and see how many people are gone, that lost their lives. When I first went there, it scared me to see all these tombs. They were our people dying – and what for? Nobody can answer that.”
Holmes, who referred to Ali as “the man, a real man, a champion,” became numb upon hearing of Ali’s passing.
“I don’t know if I cried or covered my head or whatever,” he said. “I just laid there in bed, man, and (thought) about all the things that we did. That’s all. Then I got up and I said (to my wife), ‘Did you hear about Ali?’ She said yeah. She didn’t want to wake me up.”